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Thursday, December 03, 2020

Richard Burton gives a lesson in de-escalation

To be Welsh and in show business is to belong to a rather exclusive club. We all know each other - indeed we seek each other out - and when we get together we become even more Welsh than ever. Our veneer of sophistication is only finger-nail deep in most cases and we flaunt our working-class backgounds like battle flags.

Stanley Baker and I were great mates and another good friend was Donald Houston, with whom I first worked in a radio play called This Vale Of Tears by Cliff Gordon. Geraint Evans and I performed together several times and the harpist Ossian Ellis was a frequent member of the Goon Show orchestra.

It just so happened that one year the five of us were recording a Christmas television show from the ABC studios at Elstree and, in between takes, we got chatting about Richard Burton and his affair with Elizabeth Taylor. What incensed us was the cavalier way that Richard was treating his wife, Sybil, a Welsh girl we all knew. It was the time when the affair was at its height, and Stanley knew that Richard and Elizabeth were filming at the MGM studios in nearby Borehamwood.

The recording took quite some time and in the intervals we availed ourselves of the generous hospitality of the ABC management. As the hours went by, we got more and more 'tanked up' and our determination to tell Richard exactly what we thought of him for what he was doing to Sybil grew to such an extent that Stanley made a phone call to the MGM studios. He discovered that Richard and Elizabeth would be in the pub next door and that the media were not around.

It was decided that we would drive there as soon as our recording was finished and have it out with our recalcitrant fellow Welshman. Recording over, we piled out to the car park. I had a Thunderbird in those days which only took two passengers, but somehow five of us managed to fit in.

Together we stood uncertainly outside the pub and then we burst in. There was no one in the bar except, at the end of the room, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, who was drinking a pint of beer.

'This is it,' said Stanley, who was the bravest of us, and began to move forward.

Richard watched him coming and suddenly burst into song with the opening lines, in Welsh, of 'Counting the Goats.'

We all stopped in our tracks and joined in with him. Two hours later, after we had sung ourselves hoarse and Burton had silenced Elizabeth's attempt to join in with 'Sing your own bloody songs,' the party broke up amid back slappings and mutual expressions of good will.

Outside again, I turned to Stanley and said, 'We never did mention Sybil, boyo.'

'We didn't, did we? Bloody shame,' said Stanley. And that was that.

From Harry Secombe's autobiography 'Strawberries and Cheam.'

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